Fourth-grade students at Wilson Elementary School in Sanger, Calif., participate in a makerspace activity, which many education experts say helps these English Language learners build their language skills.

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education  despite widespread concerns ranging from her lack of experience in public education to worries about her beliefs regarding vouchers and charter schools, religious education, and accountability for the education of traditionally underserved children. Her selection and President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement–focused executive orders have left many parents and educators wondering how the new administration’s policies will affect students from immigrant families and the schools that serve them. The simple answer: It depends on the actions of state and local policymakers where those students live.

Julie Sugarman

Julie Sugarman

Right to enroll. Long-standing federal court rulings uphold the right of all students to a free, public education (as affirmed by the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe) and the requirement to provide English learners (ELs) with supplementary services that enable them to access meaningful instruction (as affirmed in Lau v. Nichols). The Plyler ruling has led to policies intended to encourage families to feel safe enrolling their children in school, including, most notably, the prohibition on school officials asking about immigration status. However, there are many schools and districts where those policies are not consistently communicated, especially to front-office staff who are the first point of contact for enrollment.

Incidents such at the recent arrest of an unauthorized immigrant as he dropped off his daughter at her Los Angeles school have heightened concerns expressed by educators in recent months that parents are afraid to send their children to school or to go there themselves. In response, a number of school districts have created or reaffirmed policies to prevent immigration enforcement from taking place on school campuses. In California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has encouraged administrators to declare their districts and schools as “safe havens” for students and families, and dozens have done so. Such local actions aim to maintain a welcoming environment for immigrant children so they can access the education to which they are entitled, but it is not yet known whether those policies will be enforceable.

Vouchers and charters. Many educators are concerned about the new administration’s desire to expand charter schools and the use of vouchers, as Trump called for in his Feb. 28 address to Congress. These critics argue that school choice leads to increased segregation by race and by student characteristics (including English learner status), and that the way that charter schools are funded starves local public school districts of resources – an especially critical problem in places where traditional public schools educate a larger share of students with the most intensive educational needs.

Expanding programs to increase charter schools or to allow parents to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at private schools would require the support of Congress and the cooperation of states. An incentive for states to implement a voucher system would require congressional appropriations, and states have their own rules about charters and vouchers that would govern whether and how they could expand those types of programs. Nevertheless, it should not be assumed that Democratic-leaning states and localities would automatically resist initiatives being championed by the Republican administration and Congress. Charter schools proliferated under the Obama administration; robust charter school programs exist in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC; and Maryland recently enacted a voucher program for students in low-income families.

Accountability. The 2002 and 2015 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – both of which passed with bipartisan support – included provisions for evaluating school and district effectiveness based on the degree to which standardized test scores improved for all students and for specific groups of students such as English learners. Under the 2015 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have gained flexibility on how they will hold school districts accountable for improving student outcomes and reducing systematic achievement gaps. Although accountability is just one piece of a larger school improvement puzzle, advocates for traditionally underserved student groups are expressing concern over attempts to roll back these policies.

In fact, Congress recently voted to overturn regulations on state accountability plans. It is too soon to know the effects of this repeal, but with ESSA already handing over most authority for assessment and accountability to the states, it will be up to states to decide how strongly committed they will be to using accountability mechanisms to continue to shine a spotlight on educational inequities for ethnic/racial minorities, English learners and other groups.

Funding. Education advocates have also voiced concern that the Trump administration will cut or change the nature of federal education spending. The federal government’s overall contribution to education revenue is fairly small – 8.7 percent in 2013-14. However, deep cuts to, or a restructuring of, Title I – which sends supplementary funds to districts with high percentages of low-income students and is the largest component of the federal K-12 education budget – could affect schools serving large numbers of immigrant and refugee students. Federal Title III funds for the education of English learners (the majority of whom are U.S. born) and recent immigrants play an important role in ensuring that districts have targeted funds for activities such as teacher professional development, instructional materials, and extra instructional time after school or in the summer. Therefore, English learners could be directly affected by cuts to the annual appropriation for Title III state grants, which has averaged about $737 million annually in recent years.

The critical importance of federal funds notwithstanding, when it comes to everyday instruction for English learners, states and localities provide the greatest share of funding, and therefore play the most important role in ensuring that adequate resources are in place to meet student needs. A recent Migration Policy Institute report described the nature of such funding, noting that dollars for English learners are frequently allocated without adequate cost consideration and that English learner education is also affected by the larger context of inequitable and inadequate funding for public schools. It is worth noting that funding inequities plague states that are traditionally Democrat-led, such as New York, which has still not fully complied with a decade-old legal ruling declaring its funding system unconstitutional. With the recent implementation of its Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), California is also seeking to address long-standing criticism of funding inequities. While LCCF is certainly an important step forward, concerns remain that districts are not held sufficiently accountable for using the funds to benefit target groups, including English learners.

Civil rights. Finally, advocates are concerned about the future of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Department of Education and the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. These two offices took on a more active role in the Obama administration than under previous presidents in terms of addressing desegregation and violations of English learner students’ rights to effective services. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights  also expanded data collection efforts to highlight ongoing disparities in access and outcomes for a variety of underserved populations. Although state governments might not be able to assume the type of civil rights oversight that the federal government provides, states could put into place policies, funding and accountability processes that protect English learners and promote equitable access to education. These include policies and robust training on student enrollment that comply with Plyler v. Doe, teacher certification requirements that include training for teachers on working with English learners, and technical assistance for districts that are struggling to implement research-based instructional models to meet their students’ needs.

The weighty issues enumerated above may have lasting impacts on generations of immigrant-background families and communities. However, states have the wherewithal through their own policies and practices to mitigate cuts to funding, attempts to use school choice to weaken traditional public education, and reduced oversight on civil rights. As California and other states develop their Every Student Succeeds Act accountability plans, it is incumbent on the public to ensure that states follow through on their responsibility to provide a high-quality education to all students.


Julie Sugarman is a Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, where she focuses on issues related to immigrant and English Learner students in elementary and secondary schools.

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  1. Shelly Spiegel Coleman 5 days ago5 days ago

    The issues that Dr. Sugarman has listed in this column are critical, and many of them should addressed in the state's ESSA Plan. The ESSA statue is very clear on many English learner issues including the development of a primary language assessment for language arts. This assessment needs to be included in the state's new accountability system to address the accessibility issues for English Learners enrolled indual immersion and other programs leading … Read More

    The issues that Dr. Sugarman has listed in this column are critical, and many of them should addressed in the state’s ESSA Plan. The ESSA statue is very clear on many English learner issues including the development of a primary language assessment for language arts. This assessment needs to be included in the state’s new accountability system to address the accessibility issues for English Learners enrolled indual immersion and other programs leading to biiteracy. There is a bilingual version of the math assessment, and the science assessment is scheduled to be available bilingually. Results on both of these will be included in the state accountability system. Since the state has supported both of these bilingual assessments, we suggest that within the ESSA State Plan, the development of the Spanish Language Arts assessment be included and described how it will become a part of the state accountability system.

    Lastly, we congratulation Supt. Torlakson and his staff for making the adoption of board resolutions to declare schools as “safe havens” a priority. Resources on how to communicate this with parents and support teachers, administrators and front office staff are needed as the next step.